Reflections on Downfall

Downfall belongs to that elite cadre of films that manage to tell a truly disturbing story with such artistic skill that you simply can’t avert your gaze. A recounting of Hitler’s (and Nazi Berlin’s) final days, Downfall introduces us to a bizarre cast of villains and… well, I can’t really bring myself to think of them as heroes. The death throes of the Third Reich are seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary, who remained in the Fuhrer’s bunker almost to the bitter end.
The film works because it doesn’t pursue much of an agenda beyond simply introducing its rogue’s gallery and letting their own words and actions speak. It’s certainly not a vindication of Hitler or the Nazis; it doesn’t try to sell us any archetypal “noble Nazis” who secretly hated Hitler’s policies, nor does it try too hard to moralize or condemn.
The film begins with Junge accepting a much-sought-after position as Hitler’s secretary. During the first half-hour, we meet most of the famous Nazi personalities and see the hopelessness of Germany’s situation. Some of the early scenes feel a bit staged for effect, but they work. Hitler’s delusional state is clearly established, sometimes through bleakly comic moments. In one early scene, as explosions sound in the streets outside, Hitler demands to know who is shelling Berlin. It can’t be the Russians, his generals reply, because they can’t be that close! Unfortunately, wishful thinking can’t make the Russians disappear, nor can the grand, war-winning, and completely imaginary strategies Hitler continually orders to be undertaken by Germany’s virtually non-existent armies.
The bulk of the film simply depicts the comings and goings of Nazi Germany’s generals and leaders. As Russian bombs fall throughout the city, some people engage in virtual orgies of drinking and dancing; others casually discuss the manner in which they’ll kill themselves when the Russians finally arrive. Some plot their escapes from Hitler’s bunker (he himself refuses to leave, and expects the same from his loyal friends and staff), or try to arrange for the escape of loved ones. Still others follow Hitler around like dogs, hanging on his every word, clearly unable to imagine life without him.
Downfall is, as you might expect, a dark and unsettling film. Its characters occupy places on the moral scale ranging from “flawed” to “monstrous,” and while the film depicts them as real human beings–it’s hard not to pity even Hitler as his friends and advisors abandon him one by one–a pall of godlessness and depravity hangs over every single person, sympathetic or not. We see Hitler both as murdering tyrant and gentle father-figure. The film’s spiritual nadir comes not with Hitler’s suicide, but with Magda Goebbels’ murder of her prepubescent children to prevent their contamination by an unworthy post-Nazi world: the mind simply reels as she walks quietly from bed to bed, placing cyanide capsules in each child’s mouth like communion wafers, clutching their heads in her hands as they convulse and die.
It’s not the visceral horror of Schindler’s List, but the effect is much the same. The film allows us a few glimmers of hope towards the end, as Junge and a handful of other survivors flee the bunker in hopes of escaping. (We know at least that Junge survives the war, since she is interviewed briefly at the beginning of the film.)
Throughout much of the film’s final hour, I fought a constant urge to weep. But what for? It is a strange thing to be profoundly moved, but unable to pinpoint exactly what is moving you. Do we weep for Hitler and his cronies, however pathetic they may be? Certainly not. For the death of a dream and the end of an ambitious vision, however depraved? I think not. For the “ordinary” people who found themselves in Hitler’s bunker at the end not because they were depraved monsters, but because they were morally flawed creatures? Perhaps. For the millions dead and ruined throughout the years of war? Certainly.
As they say: never again.

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